Sunday, April 06, 2008

Out of the Vault - Nova

I had figured to make Out of the Vault a weekly thing, but since I've just started and I'm anxious to get going, I figured I'd throw in a bonus this week.

Sometimes, a hero comes along in which everything just clicks. Everything seems new and exciting, and the creators manage to put a new spin on just about everything in the book, so that by the time you finish one issue, you're dying to read the next.

Most other times, there's something like The Man Called Nova.

Nova debuted in 1976, and you can't fault the talent involved for trying. Marv Wolfman was the writer, and the first issue featured the art team of John Buscema and Joe Sinnott. Buscema was the number one talent at Marvel. His style was what Marvel considered their "house" style after Kirby left to do the Fourth World books at DC. And Buscema's work never looked better than with Sinnott's inks. So issue one looked beautiful.

The alarm bells were already ringing after that first issue, though.

Here's the basic set-up: Richard Ryder is a normal, put-upon high school kid who is basically selected at random by a dying alien warrior to receive his power. The alien, who holds the rank of Nove Prime Centurion, has come to Earth chasing this other alien who killed his planet. The Centurion can not survive long enough to take his revenge, so he gives the power to Rider instead. Once the initial menace is dispatched, Rider has to learn how to use his powers for the good of mankind. The concept, as described by Wolfman in the first issue, was to make a throwback to the first books Marvel had produced, books that were just plain fun. It succeeded only halfway.

The basic problem with Nova was that there was nothing at all special about him. His powers weren't special; he could fly, and he was really tough and strong. Pretty vanilla. What's more, everything else about him seemed rehashed and recycled. A kid with an alliterative name dealing with bullies in high school--he was a less distinctive Peter Parker. A dying alien comes to Earth, the last of his race, and passes his power on to a human--he was Green Lantern without the cool-ass ring. And besides, not only was the "last of his race" alien thing done by Superman way back when, but it had just been used by Marvel the previous year for (you read it yesterday) Omega the Unknown.

Not only that, but the story in the first issue depended on coincidence combined with stuff that just didn't make sense. Rider is apparently selected completely at random to receive the Nova power, which isn't at all satisfying. Even worse, in that initial battle, Nova fights an alien named Zorr. The battle, as illustrated by John Buscema on the left, is basic exciting Marvel action, but it ends when Zorr mysteriously disintegrates, apparently killed as the orbiting alien's dying act. But keep in mind that not only had Zorr supposedly destroyed an entire planet full of Nova's people (who presumably had comparable powers), but the alien centurion passed on his powers to Rider explicitly because he lacked the strength to defeat Zorr himself. The whole thing had the stink of a deus coming out of a machina, if you know what I mean.

So Zorr, who was being set up as some kind of cosmic threat, a poor man's Galactus if you will, ended up being a stooge who only existed as an excuse to get Rider into the costume. Once he disintegrated, he was completely forgotten.

I kept reading after that first issue, though. Like Omega, there was just enough promise in that first issue to keep me coming back, hoping to see it fulfilled. I was mostly pretty disappointed, though.

The first disappointment: Big John Buscema was replaced with his brother Sal in the second issue. This was a standard Marvel bait-and-switch: put a hot artist on the first issue or two to get kids reading, then switch for a less popular artist once kids have gotten to know the character.

Sal Buscema wasn't a bad artist. When he was really clicking, he did some memorable things. The problem with Sal was, he was fast. And Marvel, especially in the mid-70's when they were putting out a ton of books, really needed artists who were fast. There was a time when it seemed like Sal was drawing half the Marvel line.

But the way he achieved that speed was to settle into a rhythm of stock poses and stock faces. For instance, here: two panels from issue 10 showing the standard S. Buscema "guy flying toward reader after getting hit" pose. The villain doing the hitting here is The Sphinx, Nova's Doctor Doom. One thing Nova did do was establish a Rogue's Gallery for Nova right off the bat, and though they were derivative (The Condor was a Vulture knock-off, and Diamondhead pictured here ripped off Hammerhead), at least they were exclusive.

After the first 15 issues, Sal Buscema was replaced by Carmine Infantino, best known for his work on Batman and Flash at DC. By this point in his career, Infantino's art had degenerated into its own collection of tics and tricks and weird angular poses. When I was a kid, one of the first comics I ever read was an Infantino Batman featuring a character called Blockbuster, who was sort of a non-green Hulk with hippie sandals. The panel in Nova where the Hulk punches Nova looks just like a panel in my memory of Blockbuster hitting Batman: the same backward lean, the same flapping pant leg, the same daintily turned leading foot.

The Man Called Nova ended after 25 issues due to low sales, a combination of derivative writing and villains, mediocre art, and a shift in audience expectations. Midway through Nova's first run, "Star Wars" had hit the theaters and changed everyone's perceptions of what space adventure could be. And though Nova tried to respond by sending him into space to take part in a war involving the survivors of the original Nova's world, it was too little, too late.

He's been revived a few times since, but I never read those stories, so I can't comment. For me, it doesn't matter how many times they try to put lipstick on that particular pig, it's still going to be basically complicating something that never quite worked in the first place.

Which sucks, cause his flying looked really cool.

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